Katie Sherman’s grade-school stories sound as if they’ve been plucked straight out of a novel by Mark Twain.
There were the classroom sessions that included exacting penmanship lessons, exercises in proper calligraphy that saw the teacher tapping students’ worksheets with a long, wooden ruler to make her points. There was the unruly classmate who dropped a toad down the back of Sherman’s shirt and earned a stern reprisal for his prank. Sherman remembers getting her tongue stuck to the school’s frosted metal doorknob during a freezing, frigid day on the Colorado plains and the painful extraction process that followed.
These are tales that come straight from Sherman’s months as a second-grader in the Melvin Schoolhouse during the 1933-34 school year. The squat, one-room structure that now sits on the periphery of the Smoky Hill High School campus then sat at an isolated and rural intersection, land now flooded by the waters of the Cherry Creek Reservoir.
When Sherman attended the second-grade class taught by her mother, Anna Gertrude Crain, the Melvin Schoolhouse stood at the fringe of the untamed prairie in the opening years of the Great Depression. The Melvin School, which had been constructed 11 years earlier for a little less than $4,500, featured the kind of classroom dynamic that had marked one-room schoolhouses across the Western states for much of the latter 19th century.
Now, the schoolhouse stands as a relic of Colorado’s past, a precursor to what would eventually become a bustling urban school district of more than 54,000 students. In 1950, what had been the Melvin School District No. 4 dissolved and became a part of what is now the Cherry Creek School District.
Happily, that evolution didn’t see the destruction of the Melvin Schoolhouse.
With the construction of the Cherry Creek Reservoir in the late 1940s, the building’s owners relocated and repurposed the one-story building; it stood as a bar and restaurant for decades before dedicated historians worked with the Cherry Creek School District to restore and relocate the schoolhouse to the Smoky Hill site.
The decades haven’t dimmed Sherman’s memories or her fondness for the place.
“I wanted to come back. I love coming here,” said Sherman, now 88, during her latest visit to her former schoolhouse on Oct. 7. “I think it’s a masterpiece,” she added, seated at the teacher’s desk in the back of the rectangular room and flanked by the portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hanging on the wall.
It’s not the first time Sherman has made a long journey to revisit her second-grade classroom. She first made the trip to the rebuilt schoolhouse in 2002, and she recalls finding a preserved attendance roll from her mother’s class. This time, she traveled from her home in Oregon with her son, Jeff Sherman, and her grandson, David Sherman. The Melvin building in Aurora was just one of many stops on her itinerary. The Sherman family had plans to visit other Colorado sites from Katie Sherman’s childhood, including the small town of Bonanza where she attended a different schoolhouse.
“This has been a lot of fun, and we’re not in a hurry,” said Jeff Sherman. “We’ve been traveling and hearing stories about what it was like.”
Standing in the Melvin Schoolhouse, it wasn’t so difficult to imagine. The restored building features authentic furniture, decorations and books straight out of the 1930s. Wooden globes, a paper dunce cap, bound textbooks, printed rules for turn-of-the-century teachers that encourages them to “fill lamps and clean chimneys” daily – all of these touches speak to a different era in education.
That era doesn’t feel so far removed for Katie Sherman when she revisits the historic schoolhouse at Smoky Hill.
“She remembers a lot of small details,” said her grandson David Sherman.
Posted Oct. 9, 2014